Auto Inspections

N.C. lawmaker: Skip inspections for new cars

State Sen. Stan Bingham said Monday he will seek support for a proposal that would exempt newer cars and trucks from state-mandated auto inspections.

Bingham, a Davidson County Republican, said he would push the idea with lawmakers when they meet next week.

"How many new cars do you see where the brakes don't work and the tires fall off? Why go through this?" Bingham asked.

The comments came a day after The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that garages that perform inspections have undermined the program by passing unsafe vehicles or cheating customers with unneeded repairs.

Nationally, 10 of the 33 states that require mandatory emissions testing exempt cars three years old or newer, according to a 2008 state report. New Jersey, Missouri and Washington, D.C., among others, have repealed safety inspections or exempted vehicles from those tests in recent years.

In North Carolina, most vehicles under 35 years old must undergo safety checks of tires, brakes and other parts.

For about half the state, including Mecklenburg County, emissions tests connected to federal clean air rules are also required for vehicles built in 1996 or later.

Bingham proposed a bill earlier this year that would have abolished safety inspections, but it was dismissed without a vote. An Observer report Monday detailed how lobbying from garages and auto dealerships who profit from inspections defeated the bill.

Asked about the report, Bingham said he will speak with lawmakers about exempting vehicles 4 years old or newer from emissions and safety inspections to measure support before introducing legislation.

"If I am going to get as much resistance as the last time, I would just as soon not waste my time," he said.

Told of Bingham's comments, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he favors keeping inspections. Lawmakers, however, might ask a committee to look into exemptions for newer vehicles, said Berger, an Eden Republican.

"It's something worth talking about," he said.

Requirement questioned

Safety inspections started in North Carolina in 1966, as part of a traffic safety package proposed by Gov. Dan K. Moore.

But some states began abolishing their programs in the 1970s when Congress waived a law allowing the federal government to withhold highway construction money from states without regular safety checks. Some experts say technology has vastly improved auto safety, making inspections unnecessary. In Nebraska, the number of auto crashes caused by vehicle defects dropped when the state eliminated inspections, one study noted.

Today, 17 states require vehicle safety inspections compared with a peak of 31. South Carolina is among states that don't require the inspections.

DMV Commissioner Mike Robertson said he is open to considering exempting cars 3 years old or newer from safety inspections.

But Robertson said he distrusts the accuracy of studies showing crash rates are unaffected by whether or not a state has an inspection program.

"I'm not sure North Carolina and this commissioner are willing to take the chance and say 'Gee, we don't do any more safety inspections and let's see how many people we kill,' " he said. "I don't think that's a good way for the state to do business."

David Harkey, director the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said he would prefer North Carolina keep its inspection requirement, but acknowledged "trying to definitively say it reduces crashes is virtually impossible."

Lawmakers should exempt newer vehicles or those with fewer miles from safety inspections because auto manufacturing has improved to the point "that all the things they are inspecting aren't going to fail for several years," Harkey said.

Program 'upside down'

In the 1980s, emissions testing started in North Carolina in Mecklenburg County before it spread to 47 other counties.

A report from the N.C. Program Evaluation Division three years ago recommended lawmakers exclude vehicles 3 years old or newer from safety and emissions inspections because they rarely fail. The move would save motorists millions of dollars a year, the report said.

Washington, D.C., officials used the report to justify ending that city's safety inspection program in 2009.

John Turcotte, director of the Program Evaluation Division, said North Carolina's emissions program is "upside down" because it mandates tests for new cars but exempts older vehicles that are more likely to fail inspection.

During an emissions inspection, a vehicle is hooked up to a machine that checks its computerized emissions system, or onboard diagnostics.

Cars built before 1996 are not equipped with such technology so the state does not require they undergo emissions testing, said Marge Howell, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, which oversees inspections.

A test used in the past that measured the amount of toxins emitted through a vehicle's tailpipe is now considered unreliable, Howell said.

Donald Stedman, a professor at the University of Denver who has conducted research on auto emissions testing, said emissions and safety inspections are unnecessary for newer vehicles. Instead, he said, they should focus emissions testing on autos most likely to pollute.

More states changing course

Missouri state lawmakers approved a measure two years ago exempting cars less than 5 years old from safety inspections.

Former Missouri state Senator Charlie Shields, who helped pass the measure, said reforming inspection laws is difficult politically because police and other inspection supporters give dire warnings.

They "tell politicians if you eliminate this, people will die," Shields said. "This was a powerful argument, but I don't know if anybody knows if it is a true argument."

New Jersey eliminated its safety inspection program in 2010, citing a federal government study that found driver behavior is far more likely to cause a traffic crash than mechanical failure. The move saved the state $17 million, said Elyse Coffey, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

Coffey said the benefits from inspections "did not justify the expense."

Officials said North Carolina's safety and emission inspections generates revenue, more than $30 million last year.

Maine state Sen. Doug Thomas, a Republican, has been trying to abolish that state's auto inspection law. He said legislators are reluctant to end programs that generate revenue for government.

Garage owners also lobby lawmakers vigorously against any attempt to reduce requirements for newer vehicles, Thomas said.

"If a new car isn't safe, what car is?" he said.

Bingham, the Davidson County lawmaker, anticipates an uphill fight to change North Carolina's inspection rules. Legislators are resistant, often arguing "a lot of people will lose their jobs," Bingham said.

"I am going to ask them, 'What's your objection? Will you allow it be heard in committee?' " he added. "In the past, I had to go begging and pleading."

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